CEO Borda Raises Millions, Celebrates Disney Hall’s 10th

“Most people don’t want to jump off cliffs,” said Deborah Borda during a conversation last week.

She was in New York to talk about the 10th anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Frank Gehry masterpiece that shimmers in downtown L.A.

The high-voltage CEO and president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic doesn’t just lean in. She jumps, runs, bikes and skillfully separates patrons from their money.

This talent has been perfected over the years at the two dinners she typically consumes with the affluent before and after performances.

Since arriving in L.A. in 2000, Borda got Disney Hall built, created a $140 million endowment, discovered Gustavo Dudamel, and started YOLA (Youth Orchestra of L.A.) -- her version of Venezuela’s highly regarded El Sistema music program -- for disadvantaged kids.

We spoke over lunch with Muse at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.

Hoelterhoff: How are you celebrating?

Borda: We have several free neighborhood concerts featuring Julie Andrews, who’s a board member, narrating “Peter and the Wolf.” One stop is the City of Hope cancer hospital. Then on Sept. 30, Gustavo conducts a varied program including Bach, Mahler, Cage, Ades.

Hoelterhoff: That hall took forever to get built. I remember hearing about it in the late 1980s!

Glittering Hall

Borda: The place was still a hole in the ground when I got there. Frank had actually designed it before Bilbao, which a lot of people don’t realize because of the delay.

Hoelterhoff: I never get tired of looking at it, it’s so unusual. It broke the box look. Any changes as the model became reality?

Borda: At first, the skin was not stainless steel, but stone. Briefly, after Bilbao opened, titanium was considered. It sparkles and is an ideal surface for a town with a lot of rainy weather, which is not our problem in L.A.

Hoelterhoff: The orchestra had a sizable deficit when you took over. How long did you need to erase it?

Borda: We’ve had a balanced budget since 2003. Right now, the budget is over $110 million which is second only, I think, to the Met in the world of American music. We need to raise about $30 million every season.

I really want to say this: It’s a business, but you have to be motivated by an absolute love of the art form.

Hollywood Bowl

Hoelterhoff: You run two venues: Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. I see that Wayne Shorter is celebrating his 80th at the Bowl. John Williams appears over the Labor Day weekend. How many people do you employ?

Borda: 106 musicians, 132 full time regular employees, around 1,000 seasonal employees: ushers, parking lot attendants, custodial, and so on. We have around 170 events in the hall and around 70 at the Bowl. That doesn’t count our education stuff and YOLA concerts.

The Bowl is where Dudamel made his debut in 2005, when someone cancelled and he’d just won the Mahler competition. It still took two years before he signed a contract. By then, others had noticed he was an extraordinary talent. I remember being at Tanglewood and seeing reps from the Chicago Symphony and the Boston Symphony. I got a little worried.

Hoelterhoff: You’re finishing your Mozart opera cycle this season with a production of “Cosi fan tutte” by architect Zaha Hadid. Any more opera plans featuring star architects?

Changing World

Borda: Probably not. I don’t like repeating myself.

Hoelterhoff: What’s the most dramatic change you’ve observed in your world?

Borda: The decline of subscriptions. Within 20 years, the subscription rate will be down to 15 or 20 percent. It makes it a real challenge financially and artistically. This is an on-demand society now.

Hoelterhoff: What else interests you beyond music?

Borda: I take a broad view of culture, from theater to film and food. I just got back from a 10-day biking trip through Burgundy. Look, I am interested in life.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.)

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